Christmas Eve at Stagger Lee’s

A story by John Hicks

My name is Fite, F-I-T-E. I go by John most of the time. My friends know I do not like to be called by my last name when I’m behind the bar, because there is always some drunk who hears it and wants to start some mess.

I don’t like to fight. The last fight I had, I was still in high school and a boy named Wilson whipped me good. He could box, but I didn’t know it. He popped me about six times before I even thought about swinging. It wasn’t much of a fight. I looked up at him, flat on my back, and said, “Hey, sure. Dang. You win.” We got to be pretty good friends after that. He was a good guy, you know.

We got mad about this girl, Debra Jo Prestridge. She went on to become an Alabama cheerleader. Enough said.

I don’t mind backing down from a fight. I can call Greg anytime. He’s the night dispatcher. If I have a problem, about half the law enforcement in the county shows up. We cook for all the officers every Fourth. They all come by and get a plate. This year I spent a thousand dollars. Not bragging. Just saying.

Everybody who wants ribs? They get ribs. Everybody who wants a hamburger gets a sirloin burger. We make to-go boxes for the families.  That’s every Fourth, all day long. It’s worth every penny.

Law enforcement is a hell of a job. I couldn’t do it.

I don’t like the name. I could have changed the name when I bought it from J.E. I was ready to change it, but I let Spry talk me out of it.

“You can’t change the name! Are you out of your mind? This is a damn institution, is what it is!”

“I don’t want to own a bar called Stagger Lee’s,” I said. “There’s a bar called Stagger Lee’s in Athens, for starters. There’s probably a bar called Stagger Lee’s in every county in America.”

Spry had been helping me with the floors. We’d ripped out the old carpet, about the rankest job you can imagine. Then we pulled up all the old wood and laid in some new pine, which we stained and buffed. We’d already cleaned and painted the walls. It took us about five days. The place looked good. It smelled good.

Officially, we were closed for remodeling, and the sign on the door said CLOSED. But the floor was done and I already had my permits, so I was serving the illiterates who wandered in, even though it was Christmas Eve and I was dog-tired.

“Even J.E. had the good sense not to change the name,” Spry said. “And he’s half-retarded. Why don’t you play some music?”

“Stagger Lee’s sounds like a place where people stagger around drunk,” I said. “It sounds low-class. It sounds pitiful.” I turned on the stereo and put a tape in the deck. “If Loving You Is Wrong.” I had a thing for Barbara Mandrell back then. She reminded me of my ex-wife. Same hair and eyes.

Spry pressed his fingers against his temples as if overtaken by a tremendous headache.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. All right, big shot. What you gonna call it? Studio 54?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m going to call it. Studio 54.”

Spry pushed himself over the bar and pulled another Miller out of the iced beer. He sat back down and popped the tab.

“Have a drink, man. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“All right,” I said. I poured myself a shot of Wild Turkey in a coffee mug. We toasted.

“Good job,” I said. “You want a check, or are you just going to drink it all?”

“Check’s fine,” Spry said. “Seriously, John. Don’t change it. The damn name is worth more than the bar.”

I wanted to call it The Tavern. Plain and simple. People could just say, “I’m going to The Tavern” or “Meet me at The Tavern.” But I never had a chance to explain this to Spry, because these two fellows came in, and they looked like trouble.

I held up my hand and smiled. “Sorry, y’all. Closing up. Christmas Eve.”

They were both pretty good-sized. They looked like they were on the run. They had that look. Nowhere to be. They sat down at the end of the bar. One of them was eyeing me with a smile that was anything but kind. He had one of those long mustaches, two black rails down to his chin. The other one was high as a kite on something. He couldn’t keep his tongue in his mouth.

“We just want a goddamn beer,” the one with the mustache said.

“Goddamn beer,” the other one said.

I pulled two cans from the ice and set them down gently on the bar.

“On the house. Merry Christmas. We’ll be closing up in a few minutes.”

The one with the mustache was now in a staring contest with Spry. The last thing I wanted was for Spry to open his mouth, but, you know. Death and taxes.

“Where you boys from?” Spry asked.

“I ain’t no boy,” the one with the mustache said. He was telling the truth. The face was young, but there was no boy in it.

“Well, hell, never mind,” Spry said. He gave me a look. I shook my head.

It was too late, though.

“Is this some kind of fag bar? Seems like a lot of faggots in here. Faggot music.” He studied his partner, more of glance, really, and punched his shoulder, hard.


“Straighten the fuck up.” He turned back to me.

“We’ll be having some whiskey.”

I didn’t look at the Stevens. I didn’t have to. It was on a shelf beneath the register. The stock was only a few inches from my hand. I could have picked it up and aimed it in a split second. The Stevens had been a gift from my father to my grandfather before I was born. I’d taken a few inches off the barrel. Both barrels were loaded with .00 buckshot.

“Sorry,” I said. “We’re closing up so we can spend Christmas Eve with our families.” Not that any of us had families.

He pretended to dust off his filthy denim jacket. There were some military patches on there, numbers and that sort of thing.

“I said we want some whiskey.”

“You’re right down the road from a package store,” I said. “Take a left on the highway. Can’t miss it.”

Now, you can believe this if you want to. I don’t do a lot of talking. But this is what he said, the one with the mustache. Spry heard it. I don’t think the farmers at the other end of the bar caught it. They were arguing about dogs.  But the one with the mustache said it loud and plain.

“I’m gonna die tonight.”

He said it in a different voice, a pleasant voice.  I poured them both a shot of Wild Turkey. They drank the shots and left. I called Greg and I called Vic at the package store.

The one on dope gave up, but the one with the mustache ran off in the fields behind Vic’s place and made the fatal mistake of shooting at the first trooper on the scene.

They aired him out.

Spry told that story for a long time. I miss that son of a bitch.